I’ve said before that if the government is going to tax or subsidize something, there had better be a really good reason.
However, the one tax that has the best reasons going for it is the gas tax. Five minutes in a room with James Howard Kunstler will convince most people of this, provided they don’t walk out. There are a myriad of benefits that come from less automobile use: more demand for walkable cities and suburbs, decreased carbon emissions, decreased dependence on foreign oil, less need for offshore and arctic drilling, and so on.
But the federal gas tax isn’t really a tax at all. It’s not a tax in the sense that a tax is usually thought of: a tactic employed by the government to influence behavior. The gas tax is not a “sin” tax, but a user fee. The majority of the federal, (18.4 cents/gallon) gas tax goes to pay for federal highways. More money to federal highways pays for smoother, less congested highways that in the end lead to more driving, offsetting the effects of the increased price of gasoline.
It’s easy to say from the sidelines that there needs to be a “sin” style gas tax – much harder for a politician whose job rides on the performance of the economy to muster the courage to actually enact one. Especially when public opinion polls come back looking like this.